Excerpting Books for an Essay or Short Story
I took a couple of chapters from a novel in progress, formed them into a short story and sent it in to the Narrative Prize. I placed in the top ten and Tom Jenks at Narrative Magazine sent me back a copy with his editorial suggestions. Red Flag Warning had like six pages cut from it and as I read over his edits and cuts I wondered at the how and why of some of them. I was no stranger to the editorial pen as I’d been through enough workshops to understand that it’s about the writing. Claire Davis once crossed out entire pages of an essay she read for me. Giant red lines. She told me why she had cut them and how it helped the overall work (the essay was published in the Baltimore Review later minus those pages). I asked Jenks about continuity from the short story to the novel as he had cut a pivotal character out of the excerpt. I asked, “One thing is that Baines returns later in the narrative and to lose him there would alter the novel as a whole.”
He wrote: “Hi Jerry — The excerpt need not be identical to the novel. If you were to look at our current excerpt of Jayne Anne Phillips’s new novel, you will see a piece that does not appear in the same form in the novel. Jayne Anne and I worked to create an excerpt apart from the novel. The same is true of many other excerpts in Narrative and elsewhere.”
He was right of course and this wasn’t the only back and forth we had as I’ve had several stories in Narrative Magazine. Recently I worked with Jina Moore at Guernica with an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, Ahead of the Flaming Front. Jina took “On the Border,” and cut one of the thematic strands of the narrative to shorten it for publication as an essay. The strand remains in the chapter. She was also keen eyed in catching spots needing clarification on wildfire terms and equipment as they were mentioned in earlier chapters of the book, but I hadn’t added them to the essay. Good editors, in both cases made my work stronger by what they cut from the piece and by additions for clarity.
Writing tip: Editors worth their ink can tell you why and how a cut makes your piece stronger and you must be able to do the same. It does work both ways and with both editors I defended proposed cuts by telling them how and why the sentences were needed to make the narrative work and those sentences remained in the text.